I Really, Really Hate Nostalgia: Juliet Escoria Interviews Dennis Cooper
I was asked if I wanted to interview Dennis Cooper. My immediate reaction was no, because that seemed scary and intimidating. Dennis Cooper is one of the first people I ever read who showed me that writing could be both beautiful and confrontational and ugly and vulnerable, all in one quick little downed shot of words.
On top of this, Dennis Cooper has written so many books, and plays, and that blog, and he’s also been interviewed so many times – it all just seemed so daunting and I felt like I would have nothing much to say to him that hadn’t already been said.
But saying no because I was intimidated seemed incredibly stupid, so I said yes anyway. And of course Dennis was very nice and non-intimidating, which wasn’t surprising because everything I’ve ever heard about him has been kind and good.
I talked to him mostly about his most recent book, The Weaklings (XL) – a poetry collection that came out earlier this year and is an expanded version of a limited edition book of the same name that was published in 2008 – although we covered a lot of ground, discussing things like emo, his hate for Lars von Trier, amusement parks, and a lot more. We talked via Skype. It was midnight my time and 9am where he was in Paris. The video on my end was on, but I couldn’t see Dennis, which made me feel like I was talking to HAL or the Wizard of Oz, and I liked this – that he could see me and I couldn’t see him, although I don’t think it did much to quell my nervousness.
If you haven’t read The Weaklings (XL), then I highly recommend you change that. It’s a slim book but it’s the kind of thing you linger over, and the words and images in it are deceptively simple and brash. There’s the trademark Cooper sex and drugs and violence, but there’s so much tenderness and humor inside it too.
Contrast bawdy lines like
The problem with pretending your ass was my right hand all these years is fist-fucking you is like playing ‘Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.’
with the subtle fragility of like
Take that spot back in his teens
when words built stars within him,
a secret milky way so dense no
drugs competed with their score.
and you’ll have an idea of the range included within. It’s the kind of book you’ll want to mark up and refer to later, the kind of book that you keep close to your bed.
Juliet Escoria: You begin The Weaklings (XL) with a series of poems about Elliott Smith, and emo played a fairly large role in The Marbled Swarm. I have a special place in my heart for both… I was in my early 20s when emo was popular, and I was very sad at that point in my life. I’ve always really loved Elliott Smith and feel like he is currently underrated as a musician, and am also fascinated by his death story. In some ways, I feel like he was the last mysterious and mythic rock star death. What about Elliott Smith and emo is so compelling to you?
Dennis Cooper: I was pretty interested in Elliott Smith, but I didn’t have a ton of his stuff. When he died I thought, “Oh, I should listen to this guy,” and then I got really into him. I think I like his music for the same reasons most people do, which is that he was accessing some really complicated, deep stuff and I liked the way he represented it. He was in the tradition of what that kind of singer-songwriter did in that era but there were also these twists and turns. He used music and language beautifully, and there was a lot of mystery between the music and the emotions and the words. I’m really influenced by music, and I like to try to translate the way music works into writing, and he ended up being someone I studied.
He also lived right near me in LA, and I saw him at the health food store about a week before he died. He looked terrible, really really terrible, and I remember thinking, “He looks really really terrible.” I don’t know what his drug status was, but he looked strung out. I’ve seen guys strung out before and he was just thick with sweat and grease on his face and he looked kind of haunted and strange. It’s weird when personal stuff ends up affecting your interest in things, but it really haunted me – seeing him and then him dying right after.
Emo was really big here in Paris, and at the time the ground floor of the building I was living in was the flagship for this chain store called April77, which I mentioned in The Marbled Swarm. It was one of the big places where the emos bought their clothes, so there were always emos everywhere: in front of my door, around the corner, sitting around. I was thinking about them a lot and I found them impressive – there’s this huge anti-emo thing but I actually really admire people who are doing that. I’m fascinated by complicated emotion, how people express emotion, and emotive people. The way that emos try to design their emotions, and how they decide to expose and reveal it to the world in this really forefronted way through their whole demeanor and clothes is interesting to me. I like the idea of people who are really emotive or unhappy – or want to be unhappy or want to be seen as unhappy – uniting into this kind of group and creating a community. And I also thought they looked really great. I’m not so into the music, though. I tried to get into the bands that they liked, but it’s hard for me because it’s a little too traditional or something.
The Marbled Swarm needed all these style layers; it’s a really complicated novel. I thought emos would be useful, because the whole concept is kind of over-stylized and baroque in a certain way, so I decided to make the characters obsessed with emo. The narrator of that book is very interested in emotion and also very emotional but he hides it, so I thought it would be interesting if he found them erotic and fascinating. It also seemed to go nicely with anime and cosplay, which I used in the book as well.
JE: The parents in both The Weaklings (XL) and The Marbled Swarm are often blatantly fucked up and cruel – actually cruel is a mild way of putting it. In the poetry especially, though, sometimes their actions aren’t necessarily fucked up, but are more dishonest and emotionally distant. I was wondering if this resembled anything you went through in your real life.
DC: I always resist autobiographical stuff as an interpretation of writing, but yeah, sure. I’ve said this a bunch of times so it may not be interesting, but I got into writing when I was fifteen – that was when I decided I was going to be this experimental, avant-garde, really serious writer, because I had all these French writers that I liked and they were all really serious about it. The concerns that I had then were what I was working with. I think because I worked so hard then that I continued to work with those same interests, even though I’m not even close to being a teenager anymore. I had this very strong sense that teenagers were disrespected and I still feel that way— that they’re disrespected as people. They’re eroticized or dismissed, and the way they’re treated by the law – sometimes they’re kids, sometimes they’re adults. The adult world are complete control freaks about teenagers: they don’t like them, they resent them and their freedoms and sexualities. So all of that has been really interesting to me.
My parents were fucked up and weren’t supportive of me and my mother was a really, really bad alcoholic – it was kind of awful for a while – and my dad was a megalomaniacal prick who I didn’t see very much. You’re trying to hang out with your friends and the parents were always like, “You can’t do this, you can’t do that.” So it was just basic stuff like that.
The power relationship between teenagers and adults has always really interested me. I’m really interested in power relationships in general because I’ve been an anarchist for a long time, so this is fundamental. It’s always seemed like a really interesting thing to work with. It’s different now, because there’s all this really interesting writing going on, but the concerns of people who were young weren’t ever really taken seriously. You didn’t see it happening in serious fiction very much, so I thought that was an important thing to do.
JE: The poem “F+” is about hating Rod Stewart. Do you really hate Rod Stewart?
DC: That was based on a conversation I had with this young guy who had actually written something like that for class but the teacher had rejected it. When I was young, Rod Stewart was kind of cool. He seemed a little edgy and did interesting things, and I kind of thought he was good in that way. Now – I don’t really hate him, I just don’t care. I think what he’s doing now is completely boring and ludicrous, but I don’t have a beef with him or anything. I just thought it was funny that a kid would be writing about Rod Stewart, like why would you even care about Rod Stewart? He’s from the 70s. I thought it was funny, really.
JE: Is there anything you hate in that way, though?
DC: I’m not really an angry person – it’s hard for me to get angry. There are people I don’t like, though. There are people I cannot stand. I cannot stand Lars von Trier and Marina Abramović. It offends me that people like the things that they do. People will say “Marina Abramović” to me just to get me to rant for half an hour.
JE: Why do you hate Lars von Trier?
DC: I think his stuff is really condescending and manipulative and sadistic toward the audience. I think he thinks he’s really smart and I don’t think he’s smart and the whole combination just drives me crazy, so whenever I see his movies I want to kill something. I get so angry because I think it’s a really dumb game he’s playing, a really cheap game. And I’m interested in working with disturbing material and trying to get people to access stuff that’s difficult and that’s part of it – I cannot stand the way he does it. The way he does it is really, really cheap. His stuff really bothers me. Not the early stuff but from Dancer in the Dark on – I just despise everything by him. I’m sorry. Everybody I know likes him so I’m sorry.
JE: In several instances of the poems, I see drugs bring the subject an innocence or purity. Do you think drugs can do this? It seems kind of backward to what most people think, which is that drugs soil things.
DC: I would say for me they did. Not all drugs, though. I really hate heroin, really really hate it. If there’s anything in this world that I hate, then that’s the thing I hate the most. I’ve had so many friends killed by it. It’s just terrible, and also addiction is really boring. I haven’t done drugs in a long time, but I really liked cocaine and speed and all that stuff, and I used to do a lot of it, but I think they’re really dumb and don’t do much for you besides make you talk a lot and feel really horny.
For me, LSD and those kinds of drugs that I used to take, psychedelics, or even Ecstasy – I have found them enormously helpful and clarifying and important to the way I think and feel. If you want to be an interesting, unique person – and I always wanted to be a unique person, and a unique writer – drugs make you look at the world differently, if you take them in the right way, and you really think about what it’s doing to you and not just act on it. You’re accessing all these areas in your brain that you normally don’t get access to and it’s incredibly instructive, like a university or something. I find them useful, and I liked doing them.
JE: In most of your work, but in The Weaklings (XL) in particular, I see a lot of examples of the ugliness of being human, with glimmers of beauty underneath. In this collection I found more beauty than ugliness, especially when compared to a lot of the stuff I’ve read by you. Do you think people are mostly good or bad, ugly or beautiful?
DC: I think people are mostly good. I’m a super optimist and idealist. If you’re an anarchist, you have to believe that people are essentially good and the corruptions and distortions all come from power structures and things that overly organize people into monsters, or greedy people, or racists – but that deep down they’re not bad. I’ve never really had that view challenged by anything.
I’m interested in what happens to good people when they’re confronted by sensations that are very seductive, whether it’s money or sex or a situation where you could do something really terrible to someone and get away with it – it’s like what happens to a good person when they do things like that. I don’t like generalizations, but if I was going to generalize I would say that everyone is basically good.
JE: You said it’s the power structures that infiltrate into people. Is that alone what makes them bad, or are some people more bad than others?
DC: There’s all kinds of factors that make people good or bad. There are definitely people who are so damaged that they’re not going to give a shit about anybody else and they’re selfish and you can’t undo that and it’s become ingrained in who they are. You can say that they’re good, but with some people it’s such a tiny little glimmer that’s so lost in there that it’s unable to be saved. There are people out there who are just incredibly selfish.
I don’t like categories and things like that. I’m not interested in that kind of collective identity thing – I think that is a power structure in itself. I’m not interested in identity politics at all. I think if you start putting that stuff too forefronted – if you want to know someone and you put it to the point of gender or race or sexuality, you’re immediately not understanding them. I’m into the personal and the individual, and I see that as a way to get around all the exterior stuff that is laid on people. I think it’s really interesting to enter every situation with an attitude of “I don’t know anything about this person.” Nothing they’re wearing or what they’re doing or their age or race tells me anything, and I’m going to try and know who they are based precisely on what they say to me and what I see them doing and not compare it to anything else, or to people who happen to resemble them.
JE: You said identity politics doesn’t interest you – do you mean that things like gender identity and feminism aren’t important, or are they things you’re just not interested in?
DC: Oh no, it depends. If it’s important to the person who is involved in them, then it’s important. With me – I’m fine with being gay, but I’m not interested in it. I’ve never been interested in it. I don’t feel a sense of community, and I don’t think it means anything about me. If I meet someone, or I’m talking with someone, or I’m on Facebook with someone, or whatever, and that’s really important to them – the fact that they’re gay – then that’s important to them. The same with people who are really engaged with and invested in their gender, or race, or whatever. But it’s not immediately going, “Okay, this is a Hispanic woman who has this financial background and grew up in this city.” It’s about getting rid of all of that, and finding out what’s important to you and how you define yourself.
JE: So much of your work is rooted in what is dark, but then from everything I’ve heard about you, and from our limited interactions, it seems like you’re a really nice guy. Where does all this darkness come from? Is it something that’s part of your core, or something you’re getting rid of? Where does it fit in with who you are?
DC: It’s definitely who I am, it’s definitely in there. Not as much as when I was younger. I did this thing when I was really young because I was really unhappy and fucked up, and I got obsessed with de Sade and serial killers and all this stuff that really fascinated me for a while – I’m not really sure why, but I was drawn to it very heavily. In my writing, I try to study the imagination, and what is the imagination and what is not. Most of the stuff that happens in my books is about the imagination, and is framed as a kind of theater or fantasy or dream. Most of the stuff in the books is not really happening. So I made a decision, because I was fascinated by all this stuff – but I’m not a bad person – that I was going to let my imagination do whatever it wanted, and I wasn’t going to be afraid of it. If I wanted to think about killing somebody, then I would let myself imagine it and not judge it.
I had the writing as a kind of ambassador between me and that part of the world. If I didn’t have writing, then I don’t know what would happen to that stuff. I used my writing as a way to get into that dark place in me and I tried to see it really fairly. So there is that tenderness and sadness and stuff, but it’s really beleaguered and embattled.
I’ve never been a bad person. I had periods when I was young where I was trying to figure out if I was a bad person – when I was working on the George Myles cycle, which were my first five novels, I did these experiments to try and be a bad person, and it just didn’t work. I tried to see, “Can I physically do this horrible thing?” and I could never do it because I just couldn’t. And that was interesting to me, to see that there was a difference. Not so much anymore – I don’t think I’m quite as dark as I used to be. I guess my books speak otherwise, but to me it doesn’t seem like I’m dark as I used to be. Everyone always says that about me, because I’m not a bad guy, but it’s there. It’s definitely, definitely there.
JE: What you were talking about, in terms of not being afraid of your imagination, made me wonder if that relates to your anarchistic views.
DC: Finding anarchism helped me to really understand. I mean, I didn’t find it until punk, which was a long time ago, but I was in my twenties then. I found it in the obvious, dumb way, which is through the Sex Pistols. It helped me organize my thoughts, like, “Okay, this is why I feel this way and this makes sense.” It’s really logical – it helped me a lot, it really did.
I’m interested in confusion; I’ve always thought that confusion is the truth. But writing cannot be confused. It can be confused on the inside, and most of the writing that I like is really confused on the inside, but the language has to be organized and seductive and beautiful in some kind of weird fucked up way.
JE: Yeah, you have to be precise in getting to the confusion.
DC: Exactly. But I am really, really confused, as a person.
JE: I think everyone is, so it’s good to acknowledge it.
DC: Yeah. It really is the truth. Language is a total compromise. You can’t be honest, you can’t completely say what you feel, because as soon as you talk you have to use language, which inherently censors emotion. And then you’re talking to someone, and you want them to be interested in what you’re saying, so you talk to them in a certain way that makes them interested and makes them like you. That’s what is so interesting about writing – trying to deal with that, trying to figure out how to use this really strict graph, when you don’t even know exactly what you’re feeling or thinking when you’re overwhelmed.
JE: I wouldn’t say that I’m obsessed with murders or death or anything, but I’ve always watched those murder documentaries – the bad ones that are on Investigation Discovery and stuff. Do you have any cases or murderers where the details stuck with you?
DC: The first one I ever read about was in the early ‘70s. This was when I kind of discovered that people do this kind of thing, the stuff that I had been daydreaming about. That one was probably the most important to me. It was this guy named Dean Corll. He was in Texas and he killed 28 teenage boys. That one stuck with me because he had two teenage henchman, which was interesting to me because there were teenage boys who were helping him get teenage boys, and that kind of situation is very, very rare. It made it complicated.
That was the most interesting to me – the others were just kind of degrees of interest. The ones who try to make it an aesthetic experience always interest me. There’s this guy, Robert Berdella, who was in Kansas City – he was a scientist who experimented on his victims with this or that and then kept notes with what happened to their bodies. Then there’s Dennis Nilsen who drew pictures and made art out of his killings. Those guys really interest me because they’re trying to make it more than what it is.
Also in the ‘70s when I was really young, there was a whole bunch of serial killers in LA at one time – like four or five of them operating. That was weird because it could have happened to me or one of my friends, and that always fascinated and scared me a little bit.
JE: You seem to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time, with England in the late ‘70s and New York in the early ‘80s – and then I’m jealous that you’ve lived in places like Amsterdam and Paris. What location or period of your life did you feel most excited by?
DC: I would say right now. I always think that what’s going on right now is the most exciting. I really, really hate nostalgia – I think it’s a bad, distorting thing, so I never romanticize things from the past. I have fond memories, and certain things seem important to me, but it always seems that what’s going on right now is the most exciting thing to me.
JE: What’s going on in your life right now that’s exciting?
DC: I’m working on more projects than I ever have, and I have really good friends, and I love being in Paris. I’ve always wanted to live in Paris, and here I am living in Paris. Right at the moment I have four big projects that are driving me crazy because I have to work on all four of them at once.
JE: What are your four projects?
DC: The most imminent one right now is a film. I wrote a film, and my friend Zac, who is a visual artist, is the director of the film, and it’s crazy right now because we’re casting it and getting ready to shoot it. So that’s really intense. I’ve been working with Gisèle Vienne, this theater director, for a long time, and we’re working on this piece that has eight German ventriloquists on stage doing this crazy stuff. And then Zac and I are writing a movie for Gisèle to direct, which will happen next year, and then I’m working on a novel, and I’m also working on a book about Scandinavian amusement parks.
JE: So just doing a few things.
DC: Yeah, it’s a lot. It’s way too much in a way. And then I do the blog, which is also this huge amount of work, so it’s a lot but it’s fun. It’s nice to be able to do so much stuff. I’m just happy now. I like now.
JE: You’re doing all these different kinds of work, and you were talking about how language censors us. Do you think that working in the more visual modes of film and theater has something to do with that? Or is it more that you just have all these different creative urges that you want to express?
DC: Writing is this really solitary thing, and painful, and you’re all alone and you have no one to help you or tell you to work. I find it really intensive and lonely, and that’s what I’ve always done: write these books. Writing fiction – writing long form fiction – it takes for-fucking-ever. So it’s partially about collaborating, which I love. I love that I can’t make the final decision. What you’re doing is infected with what the other people want.
And I’m not a visual person, so working with Gisèle in the theater stuff is really fascinating, and I like the sharing thing. I’ll write something and then we’ll try it and then we have to change the whole thing. I find that really beautiful.
It’s also social, and writing fiction and poetry isn’t. Maybe the product ends up being social, in that you can show it to your friends when you’re finished with the thing – but working with someone, with a theater director or a movie director or performers or set designers or lighting designers – you get to be part of this gang, and I really like that. And it is interesting to write something and have it not be a page but a stage. When you’re writing fiction or a novel, you’re completely making up the characters. But if you’re like, OK, here’s this guy, and I have to write things for this person to speak, and then you think about who they are and what’s interesting about them or not interesting about them, and then you write something for them – it’s really exciting to see that happen.
JE: On your blog, you display such good taste. Is there anything you like that is just plain bad, in terms of movies or music or books or TV?
DC: I think a lot of the things that I like, people would just go “Whatever” about, such as amusement parks. I’m obsessed with amusement parks. They’re not bad but they’re also not very serious. I also really like ABBA. There are a lot of people who would be like, “ABBA?” But I could sit down and write an essay about how ABBA is total genius. Everything I like that’s bad, I could sit down and write an essay to prove it’s not bad.
I like dumb things. I like haunted houses and Halloween. I’m sure there’s lots of people who think the things that I like on my blog are bad, or dumb. I really love animated GIFs. They’re not that fantastic but for some reason I just love them.
JE: What about amusement parks are you obsessed with?
DC: I grew up in LA, and I started going to Disneyland when I was two years old. I thought it was the most perfect thing in the world. There’s something about the utopian thing, and how everything is organized. Designing things for fun. Trying to come up with this amazing thing that is fun but also complicated. The way they’re set up and organized seems really beautiful to me – landscape-wise and architecturally. I like writing really complicated things in my fiction. I like them to be machines that have these complicated things going on in them, and amusement parks are like that. I see them as art forms.
My friend Zac and I did this trip to Scandinavia, where we went to every theme park except for maybe two of them. Every day we went to a new theme park – partially for fun, because we both love amusement parks, but partially because we want to write this book. Some of them were so whatever, but then you find this one ride that is so fucked up and so weird, relative to what other rides are about, or one that has this really strange decision in it, and you get obsessed with it. Like, Oh my God, that is so weird that they decided to make the car move like this. That kind of stuff really interests me, I don’t know why.
JE: Does Scandinavia have an unusually high amount of amusement parks or something?
DC: They have a lot, and they have some really strange ones. They’re known for their theme parks and they have a kind of Scandinavian thing going on that’s hard to describe. They have some really crazy ones, really crazy rides, if you’re into that sort of thing. It was that, and also for fun, because I had never been to Scandinavia.
JE: I feel like it’s probably hard to answer this question, because you’ve made so much stuff, but do you have a particular book or play that is your favorite, or one you have more affection for than the others?
DC: I think that The Marbled Swarm is the best thing I’ve ever written. I know that it’s different than the other things, and I know that the people who like the spare, tight language I usually use aren’t so into it, but I still think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, by far.
JE: Yeah, that one seemed the most confusing to me, in terms of “How the hell did he do this?”
DC: It was hard. It was really hard. I’d always wanted to write really complicatedly, and I finally figured out a way to do it. That book is so complex. It was so fucking difficult. But that’s part of what I like about it. If you wanted to, you could spend a year figuring out everything in that book. There’s so many games and different kind of things. So it was really exciting to me to be able to pull that off.
I also really like this book of mine called My Loose Thread. I’m very proud of that book. It’s the opposite of The Marbled Swarm – it’s super straightforward and really flat and tight and hides a lot of stuff. There’s something about it that I like a lot. It’s different than my other books because I wrote it from beginning to end and I never do that. This was when the high school shootings were going on, and I was really pissed off, and it was kind of my weird response to that. I was angry about how those were being treated by the media, so it was just kind of an intense thing for me. It’s the opposite of The Marbled Swarm, but I think those two are my best writing. They’re the only two books I’ve written where I like everything about them. All the other books I have some problem with.
lede photo via Joel Westendorf, snapped by Charles Ray at LA County Fair, late 90s. 2nd photo by Casey McKinney, Paris, 2011. Order The Weaklings (XL) from Sententia Books